A week after the military announced it would relax hair rules for women, a sailor has confirmed she will be discharged Friday from the Navy after a 12-year career for failing to obey an order to cut off her natural hairstyle.
Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class (SW/AW) Jessica Sims told Navy Times that she will be honorably discharged after refusing to trim her locks, which she had worn in small, tightly wound dreadlocks twisted into a bun since 2005. After a delay on her discharge, officials ruled that Sims' locks were out of regulation and that her bun was too bulky to be worn with a gas mask.
"For the past couple weeks, not knowing what the Navy was going to do, if they were going to move forward with the discharge or keep me in, had me in a little limbo," Sims said in a phone interview Wednesday. "In the back of my head I knew that they weren't going to change, so it was more of just waiting for the date."
Chief of Naval Personnel spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Chris Servello said Sims will be discharged for disobeying a lawful order. Her chain of command at Recruit Training Command Great Lakes in Illinois ordered her to get her hair within regulations earlier this year, soon after she reported in April.
"(Assistant Navy Secretary for Manpower and Reserve Affairs Juan) Garcia and (Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. Bill) Moran have completed their review and are more than satisfied that the chain of command handled this case by the book," Servello said.
Sims' discharge comes just a week after the Department of Defense announced it would make dreadlocks, cornrows, twisted braids and other hairstyles popular among African-American women more acceptable after a review of its policies.
Sims, 32, first spoke to Navy Times Aug. 4, anticipating a discharge the following week. The Navy confirmed her administrative separation proceedings on the basis of her hair.
Sims said that her hair had never been a problem until she checked in at Great Lakes. Before her move to boot camp, she had spent seven years as an instructor at Naval Medicine Training Support Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, The Basic School at Quantico, Va., and Field Medical Service School at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
She contended that hair regulations are biased against the natural hairstyles of many African-American women. The Navy's uniform regulations specifically ban "widely spaced individual hanging locks," but Sims said that because hers are closely spaced and worn in a bun, they don't violate the rules.
"I don't think I should be told that I have to straighten my hair in order to be within what they think the regulations are, and I don't think I should have to cover it up with a wig," she said.
The Navy said her chain of command gave her multiple opportunities to cut her hair, but Sims said that amounted to shaving off her locks and wearing a wig. Her discharge came down to disobeying her command's order to shear off her locks. In addition, Servello said, there were some safety concerns to consider.
"As depicted in the photos that Petty Officer Sims provided, you can clearly see the size of the bun that she wears her hair in is out of regulation," he said. "Bulky hair makes it difficult to wear headgear and safety equipment like a gas mask, hard hat or firefighting ensemble properly."
Sims said she always makes sure her bun protrudes less than two inches from her head, per regulation, and that she'd never had a problem wearing safety helmets or gas masks.
Taking a stand
Sims said the new regs are a step in the right direction, but that the Navy still needs to take a closer look at locks.
"To me, my natural hair is professional," she said. "It's all how you keep yourself up. I could just have a regular bun and not take care of that and it could look unprofessional."
Many Navy Times Facebook commenters agreed that Sims' hair looked well-kept, though others argued that she failed to obey an order, and that was grounds enough for a discharge.
In the end that's what it came down to, but Sims said she doesn't have any regrets.
"I am happy that I took the stand that I did," she said. "I still stand by it. I would do it again if I had to."
Sims added that if the Navy wants to ban dreadlocks across the board, then the regulation should say that, rather than explicitly banning "widely spaced individual hanging" locks.
"I won't be the last one standing up fighting for this issue," she said. "I have faith in our junior sailors because they are the future of our Navy, and the majority of them were supporting the right thing."
Sims is scheduled to get her discharge papers on Friday, then start classes at Loyola University of Chicago on Monday, where she plans to major in biology as a pre-med.
"I look at it like this: God only closes one door to open another for greater things, and I am blessed and highly favored," she said.